Satish Chand is a Professor in the School of Business, University of New South Wales.
Last December it was revealed in the media that the Australian Government would divert $375 million from its foreign aid budget (of a total $5.2 billion) to fund the onshore processing of asylum seekers arriving by boat. Foreign Minister Bob Carr defended the move: 'Spending money on refugees who've landed on Australian soil is as valid as spending it on refugees who are in refugee camps around the world.'
Minister Carr has argued that the use of aid funds to process asylum seekers is consistent with OECD guidelines and is practiced in the US, France, and Canada. Stephen Howes agrees, pointing out on his blog that 'the rationale for including domestic refugee-related costs as ODA is solid, and has been accepted by the OECD'.
I disagree. Unlike Australia and its 'Pacific Solution', I do not know of any other OECD member that interns asylum seekers, particularly on foreign soil. Australia's policy of incarcerating those who arrive with a view to seeking asylum is an integral part of its policy on border protection. Thus, normal duty of care applies to interns while in confinement. This is no different to the obligations to prisoners, including prisoners of war.
This is in sharp contrast to providing food and shelter to refugees in camps abroad, since they are there for their own protection and can leave at their own volition. The provisions provided at these camps are motivated solely by humanitarian considerations. Australian refugee policy, by contrast, is designed to deter new arrivals by punishing those who attempt to 'jump the queue' in seeking asylum by reaching its shores illegally.
When I made this argument in the comments section of Stephen Howes' blog post, he countered with a fresh argument: that resettling refugees achieves the aim of poverty reduction and thus the outlays on the above qualify as official development assistance.
Interning refugees is not the most efficient means of reducing their poverty, but more importantly, such an argument can put Carr on a collision course with the Refugee Review Tribunal.
The motivations for raiding the aid budget are many, including the disappearing projected budget surplus and the rapidly rising costs of the new refugee policy. The number of boat arrivals reached 16,800 in the 2012 calendar year. It is projected to increase further in 2013. Processing these claims takes up to five years, thus the demands on the budget to fund the refugee policy has ballooned.
But dressing up what is clearly an outlay on border protection as official development assistance is beyond the powers of even the parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia; the parliament can reallocate expenditure, but it cannot mislead.
The claim that the outlay on refugees reduces their poverty is flawed, as refugee status and a protection visa is granted solely on the grounds of 'persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion'. The UN mandated Refugee Convention to which Australia is a signatory places no obligation to provide protection to people who do not fear persecution even if their home nation is engulfed in war, famine, or environmental collapse. In fact, those deemed by the Refugee Review Tribunal to be seeking residency for poverty reduction are classified as economic migrants and denied asylum on this very consideration.
If refugees cannot use poverty reduction as a reason to be granted residency in Australia then the Australian Government cannot use the same excuse to justify its use of aid to intern them.
The Australian Government has the powers to reallocate funds earmarked for foreign aid to border protection but it must be transparent about this shift.
Photo courtesy of the Defence Department.